“We have to astonish them.”
When looking for a story to bring the motion comic technology to the masses, Astonishing X-Men is a good choice. Written by geek god Joss Whedon (Firefly) with art by John Cassady (Planetary), the comic was crafted as a whole new beginning for the X-Men characters, except that this is the X-Men we’re talking about. They get an “all-new, all-different” fresh start about once every other week.
Operating out of the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters, the X-Men are mutants, who fight for a better tomorrow, in which mutants and humans can someday live together in peace.
• Cyclops, the stalwart leader, who blasts powerful energy beams from his eyes.
• Emma Frost, a telepathic former villain who has recently joined he team and started a scandalous romance with Cyclops
• Kitty Pryde, who walk through walls. She recently returned to the team from years away.
• Beast, the brains of the group, whose intellect is hidden behind a hairy, animalistic exterior.
• Colossus, recently returned from the dead, the metal-skinned Russian rekindles a romance with Kitty.
• Armor, a student at the Xavier school who keeps getting caught up in the team’s adventures.
• Wolverine, with his metal claws, unbreakable skeleton, heightened senses and fast healing, he’s the resident tough guy.
This two-disc set recreates all four arcs of Whedon and Cassady’s run:
Word gets out about a geneticist who says she has developed a mutant cure. This catches the attention of both the X-Men and a ruthless, violent alien named Ord.
It appears that the school is under attack, so all the students are ushered into the Danger Room, the school’s high-tech training facility. Problem is, the Danger Room itself is behind the attack.
The X-Men are under attack again, this time psychically. As an unseen force invades everyone’s minds, it appears that Emma is to blame. Has she gone back to her evil ways?
It’s off to outer space, to Ord’s home planet Breakworld, where a prophecy says an X-Man will someday destroy the planet. Breakworld is ready to respond with a deadly weapon aimed at the Earth.
To begin, I’m impressed with the whole “motion comic” thing. I was expecting flat panels on screen accompanied by voiceover. Instead, the creators have done a lot to bring Cassady’s art to life. They add a lot of movement and expression to the characters’ faces, teasing a lot “acting” out of the drawings. The action scenes are nicely recreated as well. The big action beats often switch to slo-mo to better give us a sense of what is happening in each pane. In a way, the motion comic tech emphasizes every single punch or claw strike, so that every hit has meaning, moving the story forward. This is an interesting contrast to the wild flurry of punches and kicks usually found in live action movie fight scenes. Shots of the characters walking look a little awkward, but other than that, the motion comic experience turned out to be pretty impressive.
The visuals, impressive though they are, sometimes have a disconnect between the setting and the action on screen. I think it’s because so many shots/panels have no background. Animated films usually have a small army of background artists, and live action filmmakers will often add to the backgrounds, filling out the space behind the actors. During the X-Men’s trip to Breakworld, only a few shots/panels give the appearance that our heroes are on an alien world. Too many times, the backgrounds are just a single color, with the characters front and center. This can work on the printed page, such as when a red background against an angry character emphasizes the anger, but somehow, in such a literal translation to screen it loses something. Instead, it gets to difficult to sort out which character is where in any given scene. This makes “Unstoppable” especially confusing. As the characters are split up in a number of different environments on more than one planet, scenes quickly shift from Wolverine and Armor to Kitty and Colossus to Ord and Danger, and the minimal backgrounds offer very little sense of who is where or how far apart anyone is from anyone else.
Then there’s the story. I like Whedon as much as the next nerdenstein, but perhaps this isn’t his best work. “Gifted” and “Dangerous” work well enough, but the plots unravel starting with “Torn.” It’s never adequately spelled out just what the villains are after, or what, exactly, Emma’s role is in all this. It’s ambiguous—she’s behind the attack, but she’s not, but she is, but she’s not, and so on. “Unstoppable” suffers from the problem that so many X-Men adventures suffer from—an overabundance of characters and subplots. In addition to all the X-Men, we’re also following subplots with Ord, Danger, other Breakworld characters, Agent Brand of S.W.O.R.D., other Marvel heroes back on Earth, and more. The storyline constantly bombards the viewer/reader with information, o much so that the big emotional ending doesn’t quite have the impact it should. Although intended as a jumping-on point for new viewers, first-timers might be lost, as the story has a lot of X-baggage. Scott and Emma’s relationship, Kitty and Peters relationship, talk of Genosha and secondary mutations—this will all be foreign for folks who’ve only seen the live-action movies.
This is still Whedon we’re talking about, so the scripts have plenty of positives as well. The dialogue is filled with a lot of humorous Whedonisms. Whedon clearly identified with Kitty, putting her front and center in all four stories, with her being an audience surrogate as she returns to the X-Men after several years away. Whedon cranks up the tension between Kitty and Emma, gratifying a lot fans’ criticisms about Emma’s place among the X-Men. Whedon also obviously enjoyed writing for Beast, and he saves some of the best lines for this character, really playing up the duality of an intellectual in a monster’s body. I like Whedon’s dynamic, action-oriented take on Cyclops, as I’ve always enjoyed “heroic leader Cyclops” much more than the current “jerk Cyclops.” Wolverine, as usual, ha some great tough guy moments, and even some comedic bits in “Torn,” after his mind is taken over. It’s silly, but not so silly that it totally destroys the character.
Unlike Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic, which has a single voice reading everything, audiobook-style, Astonishing X-Men benefits from a full voice cast. Eileen Stevens as Kitty, Mike Pollock as Beast, and Erica Schroder as Emma are especially good, making the comic book dialogue sound natural. A full-on orchestral score benefits the production nicely, keeping the whole thing feeling fast-paced, with a big scope.
The four features have received a nice digital scrubbing for high def. The colors are bright and vivid, and the audio, especially the score, booms out of all five speakers with gusto. There are two featurettes, in which creators go over the origins of the story and their excitement about the motion comic process. Co-director and comics legend Neal Adams makes a good argument as to how motion comics are not filmmaking, animation, or graphic novels, but a whole new medium that uses elements of all three. An original music video is also included.
I know I’ve written a lot of negative things about Astonishing X-Men but I did enjoy it, mostly for what it represents. I doubt motion comics will ever replace Hollywood blockbusters, but I wonder what they represent for comics. As more and more of us have been reading comics online or (sigh) on our phones, the digitalization of comics could very well lead to motion comics, or something like them, as the wave of the future for graphic storytelling. Maybe so, maybe not, but I can’t but wonder.